Brandon Krusey admits this was a game Davenport North’s football team would have let slip through its fingers last season.
But with another year of seasoning and better leadership, these Wildcats are learning how to finish out the close ones.
Behind a dominant performance from its defensive front and two touchdowns from Kade Schultz, North opened Class 4A District 4 action Thursday night with a 13-7 homecoming win over Linn-Mar at Brady Street Stadium.
After losing three games by a combined eight points last season, North has won contests by 1, 13, 12 and 6 points, respectively, this season.
"I don't think we would have pulled that out last year," Krusey said. "We would have found some way to give it up or backfire on ourselves. Our kids have learned a little toughness, how to stick with it and how to close some things out."
Players said finishing games was a frequent topic of discussion during the offseason. Whether it is blocking a field goal like it did in Week 1, overcoming a 10-point deficit with two touchdowns in a 10-second span last week or coming up with a key defensive stand, North has found a way.
“We’ve learned how to finish games and work until the end,” lineman Logan Stewart said. “We’ve got more intensity, more leadership and a better work ethic. There are more people that want to win.”
As a result, North (4-1, 1-0) is off to its best start in 31 years. The Wildcats never have been 5-1 in a season and are two victories from matching the 1987 and 1989 squads for the best mark in program history.
The excitement around school is building with each win.
“They finally believe in themselves, they can finish some stuff and are capable of doing bigger and better things,” Krusey said.
North rode Schultz.
The 5-foot-9 and 170-pound junior carried the ball 36 times for 155 yards. He had scoring runs of 8 and 5 yards in the second quarter to give the Wildcats a 13-0 cushion.
“Just my (offensive) line giving me a push,” Schultz said. “Those guys were good up front and gave me something to work with for most of the night.”
On the flip side, North made Linn-Mar (1-4, 0-1) one-dimensional.
North freshman Dominic Wiseman, junior Hunter Kelley and seniors Brant Carter and Stewart each knifed their way into the Lions' backfield at some point during the game. Linn-Mar finished with minus-1 yard rushing on 27 attempts.
“We wanted to put pressure on the quarterback,” Stewart said. “We knew what we were working with. It starts at practice and making sure we keep our responsibilities. Nothing is going to get past us.”
Even so, it was dicey for North late.
Linn-Mar quarterback Marcus Orr hit Will Zahradnik on a 25-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter. Orr completed 22 of 34 throws for 251 yards.
In addition, North lost starting quarterback Jack West to an ankle injury. Sophomore Zane Beebe relieved him and led a drive that took more than six minutes off the clock, including a critical third-down completion to Priest Sheedy.
The Wildcats couldn’t convert it into points as they had a field goal attempt blocked.
Linn-Mar marched to North’s 49 before Beebe picked off a pass from Orr on fourth down.
The Lions had one more opportunity after a Wildcat punt with less than a minute left from their own 18, but they never got the ball to midfield as time ran out.
“I was pretty scared,” Schultz said. “It was getting a little too close there.”
North plays its first game away from Brady Street next week at Iowa City High.
In the meantime, Krusey is savoring the postgame smiles from his players.
“That never goes away for me to see those things,” he said, “but we need to stay grounded and keep working. These kids are capable of more.
“The challenges are only going to get bigger from here.”